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Isopods - Culturing and Care

Posted by Glass Box Tropicals on Feb 12th 2021

General Information: Isopods - also known as rolly pollies, pill bugs, sow bugs, potato bugs or wood louse - are an important addition to a terrarium ecosystem. Although many species of isopods are found all over the world, this article focuses on the care and culture of tropical species.

Isopods are invertebrates that are actually more closely related to lobsters, shrimp, and crabs then they are to insects. They are tiny, terrestrial crustaceans that breathe through gills and prefer very high humidity environments. In their natural environment, isopods are usually found under rotting logs, rocks, or in the leaf litter.

Isopods can and do play many key functions in a terrarium ecosystem. Isopods are amazing terrarium janitors. They help break down animal waste, leaf litter, and other plant debris. In the process, they make nutrients available for your plants and help to prevent build-ups of organic material in your tank. In addition to helping balance the tank ecosystem, isopods can also be an occasional source of nutrition for your tank inhabitants. Although isopods should not be counted on as a staple diet item, many animals - including geckos, frogs, and tarantulas - enjoy isopods for a snack.

Types of Isopods: Although there are hundreds of isopod species in the world, there are only a handful used in terrariums. The terrarium isopods that we offer for sale fit into two categories: dwarf isopods and the larger standard isopods.

Dwarf isopods - as the name implies - are very small. They reach about ¼” in length as an adult, or about the size of a grain of rice. We offer three types of dwarf isopods: Dwarf White, Dwarf Gray, and Dwarf Purple. All three are very similar in size, with little to no difference visible to the naked eye. Each link above takes you to their individual pages for more details.

The larger, standard isopods typically reach ½-¾” as adults. This size is more typical of what you would see in your yard when you move an old piece of wood or rocks from the ground. Our standard isopod collection includes Giant Orange, Dalmation, Zebra, Brickwork, Giant Canyon, and Powder Blue isopods. Each of these has its advantages and unique characteristics. Please click on the individual names above for more details about each type.

Caring for Isopods (In a culture): Isopods are relatively easy to care for, and should only need attention once a week or so. To take good care of isopods, they need a properly maintained environment, and to be fed as necessary. When cultured, this should include keeping them in a dark area (a closet works well), and at or slightly above room temperature.

To begin with, a proper environment needs to be maintained for the isopods to flourish. This is relatively easy to accomplish once a culture is set up (discussed below). Each time the isopods are fed, the humidity and substrate moisture should be checked. Many people choose to lightly mist their isopod container each time they feed them, in order to help maintain the humidity. Isopods appreciate a high humidity environment, similar to that of a terrarium. Additionally, there should always be a layer of leaf litter on top of the culture in order to provide cover as well as a food source for the isopods. Leaves and new pieces of cork bark should be added as you observe the existing ones being eaten. Depending on the species, some go through leaf litter and cork much quicker than others.

The other key to keeping isopods is a proper diet. Many isopod keepers agree that diversity in diet is a key to a happy and healthy culture of isopods. It is our experience that they love many fresh fruits and vegetables with a preference for zucchini and pumpkin. Also, Repashy Bug Burger and Repashy Morning Wood seem to be favorites as far as prepared foods go. Both of these are very easy to prepare by following the directions on the jars. Finally, a good source of calcium seems to be a key as well. This can be done through keeping a varied diet, but also through the use of a cuttlebone which you can find in the bird section of any pet retailer.

Culturing Isopods: Setting up a proper culturing environment for isopods is relatively simple with the Glass Box Tropicals Isopods Breeding Kit. It provides you with all of the necessities to get started.

To set up your culture you will need:

To set up your culture it is only a few steps:

  1. Gather all of the above supplies

  2. Open the 6.25 qt container

  3. Mix all of the contents of the gallon bag of Glass Box Tropicals Isopod Substrate together in a large container or bucket - thoroughly mixing all of the substrate ingredients is very important

  4. Put about half of the mixed substrate back in the bag for future use

  5. Mix RO water with the substrate in the bucket until it is thoroughly moist, but not wet

  6. Place the moistened substrate into the 6.25qt container filling it about half way

  7. Place the isopods into the culture

  8. Cover the top of the culture with a few layers of Willow Oak Leaf Litter

  9. Place a few small pieces of cork bark on top of the leaf litter

  10. Mix the Repashy Bug Burger following the directions and place a half inch cube into the culture

  11. Cover the culture and place in a closet or other dark area that stays at room temperature

  12. Check the culture weekly and feed and mist as needed - full care directions are above

Harvesting Isopods: Isopods are very easy to harvest, although some will try to escape when they are exposed to light (so you should try to be quick about it!). Typically, the easiest way to harvest them is to place a slice of a raw vegetable, like zucchini or potato, into their culture. Allow it to sit in their culture overnight. The next morning, take the culture to the tank you want to place the isopods in, or next to the container you want to put them in. Quickly open the culture, pull out the slice of vegetable, and shake the isopods off into the tank or new container.

Another option: once a culture has a high enough population you may be able to easily scoop them out with a spoon. With some of the larger species, you may be able to just grab them one by one. Once harvested, make sure you get them to a humid environment. If they are not kept constantly moist, they will desicate.

Other Tips and Tricks:

  • When using pumpkin or other squash as food, the seeds may germinate. If they do, we highly recommend quickly removing any seedlings before they can get a root system established in your culture.

  • If you see mold in your culture, you can either pull it out by hand, or increase the ventilation by poking small holes in the cover of the culture. A small amount of mold will not hurt the isopods, but large amounts can slow down or completely kill off the culture.

  • If you open your culture and do not immediately see any isopods, they may all be hiding in the soil. To check if there are living isopods, place a piece of food in their culture and then wait a day. When you go back to check the food, you may or may not see isopods, but you should see marks on the food where they were eating it.

  • You do not want to let your culture get overcrowded as isopods have been known to cannibalize one another. If you think your colony is getting overpopulated, you can harvest some to use in a terrarium, or set up another culture. You may also transfer your current culture into a larger container to allow more room.

  • Isopods have been observed eating plants from time to time. The larger species seem to be more prone to do this, though some people have reported seeing the dwarfs do it as well. Typically they seem to go for more succulent type plants like Jewel Orchids, though they may go for any plant if they want to. -- In our experience, this is typically only an issue when there is a large population and they start to compete too much for food. If this does happen, you can try to remove some of the isopods by hand, or you can place slices of raw vegetables in your tank to attempt to bait them and then remove them from the tank.